Statements & Speeches

Mental Health, Illness and Addiction Services in Canada

February 8, 2012

Honourable senators, in May 2006 the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology produced a report that would change the face of mental health in Canada. Led by the Honourable Michael Kirby and the Honourable Wilbert Keon, the committee began their work after receiving an order of reference in October 2004. An extract from the Journals of the Senate of Thursday, October 7, 2004, states that the committee “be authorized to examine and report on issues arising from” an earlier 2002 report on the state of the health care system in Canada. The reference further states:

In particular, the committee shall be authorized to examine issues concerning mental health and mental illness.

This 484-page report, with its additional 57 pages of appendices, covers enormous ground. Each chapter sheds light on the impact of mental illness in Canada. The subjective voices of individuals and families and their heartrending stories are highlighted. Service organization and delivery that looks to an integrated continuum of care with an emphasis on primary care is examined. An entire chapter is devoted to an underfunded and fragmented child and youth system where a critical shortage of mental health professionals results in very late interventions or none at all.

In addition, research and knowledge transfer are identified as necessary for the development of specialized treatment programs and support services for seniors who are too often warehoused because they suffer the double whammy of being both aged and mentally ill. The human and economic impact of mental illness in the workplace is examined along with the all-important opportunities for self-help and peer support. The report includes so much more — research, ethics, privacy, mental health promotion, and mental illness prevention strategies.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this Senate report was the timely response to the committee’s concern that the mental health sector had been so neglected over decades. Recommended was that there should be a mechanism to ensure leadership in undertaking certain critical tasks at a national level to maintain a needed focus on mental health issues. That mechanism was the proposed Canadian Mental Health Commission.

The guiding principles for this commission were that it be an independent, not-for-profit organization at arm’s length from both governments and all existing mental health stakeholder organizations; that it make those living with mental illness and their families the central focus of its activities; that it build on and complement initiatives already under way throughout Canada; that it establish partnerships all along the spectrum of existing national and international mental health agencies and stakeholders; that it emphasize evidence-based mental health policies and methods of service delivery; and that it evaluate, assess and report on its own activities.

The mandate of the commission is to act as facilitator, enabler and supporter of a national approach to mental health issues. It is the catalyst for reform and a national focal point for objective, evidence-based information. It is designed to increase mental health literacy in Canada and to diminish the stigma and the discrimination faced by Canadians living with mental illness and their families.

Why have I been so descriptive in detailing the principles and mission of the Mental Health Commission? Because it demonstrates the enormous role it was meant to play in changing the overall mental health landscape in Canada and in transforming the system into one that is truly of the 21st century. We look forward to the spring of this year when the commission will release the results of its work and make recommendations for the future on an agenda so critically important to all Canadians.

One of the first initiatives of Prime Minister Harper, upon winning the election in 2006, was to create the Mental Health Commission of Canada. In so doing, this government has demonstrated its priorities. Improving the quality of life of Canadians who live with mental illness and the families who support them is critical. This government has shown leadership in its will to change the archaic paradigm from one that has allowed confusion, misdirection and discrimination to one that will bring clarity, evidence-based direction and affirmation of a new, compassionate reality.

When establishing the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2007, the Harper government dedicated an initial $110 million in funding over 10 years. In the budget of 2008, an additional $110 million was invested to research issues of mental health and homelessness in Canada over a five-year period.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have received over $234 million since 2006 towards their efforts in researching mental health issues and addiction in Canada. In addition, many major initiatives across the country are supported through the National Anti-Drug Strategy, the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, the Aboriginal Head Start program, the Community Action Program for Children, the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program, The Family Violence Initiative, the Brighter Futures Initiative, the Building Healthy Communities Initiative and the Federal Elder Abuse Initiative. While some of these programs are not focused directly on mental health or addiction, all of them produce benefits for the mental health of Canadians.

For example, the Federal Elder Abuse Initiative works to prevent the abuse of vulnerable elders. As a partner in the Federal Elder Abuse Initiative, Justice Canada funds research on elder abuse awareness, reporting and the legal aspects of elder abuse. In addition, Justice Canada raises awareness of the risks of fraud by producing materials for seniors. Justice Canada also funds public legal education and information organizations working on the legal aspects of elder abuse.

The National Anti-Drug Strategy is a multi-pronged attack on substance addiction in Canada that focuses on prevention, treatment and legal enforcement. Some $30 million have been dedicated to the prevention action plan, which provides information on drug use directly to parents, educators and health professionals. Local, school-based awareness and prevention strategies have been developed and existing community drug use programs have been refocused and strengthened. The national prevention action plan has released a public awareness campaign called DrugsNot4Me, which reaches out to teens and opens a dialogue about illicit drug use.

In addition, the treatment action plan has been provided with $100 million in funding for drug treatment programs for First Nations and Inuit, for young offenders and for research to develop new treatment models. As a result, the RCMP have the possibility of referring youth with drug related problems to treatment programs where they receive the assistance necessary to help them overcome the challenge of addiction.

The third plank of the National Anti-Drug Strategy, known as the Enforcement Action Plan, gives assistance to enforcement agencies to crack down on marijuana grow ops, drug labs and distribution networks across the country. Targeted funding has been provided to the RCMP to enable dedicated anti-drug squads to investigate organizations that produce and distribute dangerous drugs.

The ability of Canadian law enforcement agencies to work with their American counterparts in combating the flow of money and illicit drugs has also been improved.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada has been given additional funding to provide legal advice to law enforcement agencies during investigations so that those involved in the production and distribution of illegal drugs can be penalized to the full extent of the law. All in all, $102 million has been invested to support these specific efforts which will help punish those who profit from the misery of addiction.

In June of last year, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada announced a new, voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. New guidelines will be provided to employers across the country as a model of best practices. It is hoped these will lead to measurable improvements in workplace mental health. Canada is the first country to develop such a set of standards. The rationale is to highlight psychological health as an integral part of workplace health and safety. With the investment of $320,000, this project will help remove some of the barriers that Canadians with mental illness face in the workplace.

The peer project, launched by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, helps enhance the public’s ability to provide support and understanding for friends, family and colleagues who suffer from mental illness. This program is founded on the belief that those who live with mental illness are valuable teachers and advocates. They are best suited to share experiences and offer advice to those in similar situations.

Another important project overseen by the Mental Health Commission of Canada aims to train people in mental health first aid. This emphasis on early intervention trains human resources managers to identify signs and symptoms of potential mental health problems in the workplace and facilitate referrals to health professionals when appropriate.

Honourable senators, in the past the Senate has played a leadership role as a champion of mental health in Canada. It is part of a great legacy, and every one of us in this chamber should be proud of this history.

Now it is our job to uphold the principles of this report. In honour of its legacy, let us come together as we commemorate the fifth anniversary of Out of the Shadows at Last, and let us remember that we have more work to do and more promises to keep.